Charles Leno Jr. ready to reward Bears’ confidence in him
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Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. didn’t track the Bears’ spending in free agency or monitor the draft pick by pick. But he got the message when the Bears didn’t add a left tackle.
“They believed in me,” Leno said. “Now I’ve got to repay them.”
Similar to guard Kyle Long and tackle Bobby Massie on the right side of the line, Leno is entrenched as the Bears’ starting left tackle. The main competitions are at left guard, center and swing tackle.
Some fans and observers have their doubts about Leno. But it’s important to have perspective when considering the Bears’ belief in him. He’s a 2014 seventh-round pick who just finished his first season as a starter. He’s a promising 24-year-old, not a stopgap.
“I know if I’m confident in my technical abilities — which I am, and I’m still growing — I know I can play against anybody,” Leno said recently during organized team activities.
Leno is and isn’t the second-coming of J’Marcus Webb, the athletic, but lackadaisical former starter who is remembered for getting bumped and barked at by quarterback Jay Cutler.
Webb and Leno were seventh-round picks who turned into Cutler’s blind-side protectors by their second seasons. But the similarities end there.
Their personalities are considerably different, and Leno, the last pick made by former general manager Phil Emery, also won over a new coaching staff. A lackluster training camp and a calamitous preseason did in Webb under former coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer.
Leno opened last season as the Bears’ top reserve at tackle and the extra lineman for certain packages. He started for an injured Jermon Bushrod in Week 4 and played well enough to hold the spot after Bushrod returned to health.
Former offensive coordinator Adam Gase often left Leno one-on-one against formidable pass rushers with different strengths, including Aldon Smith, Ziggy Ansah and Tamba Hali. Instead of bumping and barking at Leno, Cutler complimented him.
“Sometimes it’s how the protection swings,” Leno said. “Sometimes you get help, sometimes you don’t. You’ve just got to do your job.”
After the season, GM Ryan Pace described Leno as a “real pleasant surprise” who “really exceeded expectations.”
It wasn’t lip service, either.
The Bears’ offseason moves said plenty, too. When the Bears goodbye to guard Matt Slauson, a revered team leader, and didn’t add competition for Leno, it was a statement that he fit into their plans.
Opinions can change, but the Bears currently see a player who can be better than he was in 2015. Offensive line coach Dave Magazu said Leno reported to Halas Hall bigger and stronger.
“I feel like I have the confidence from the [2015 season],” Leno said. “But also I’ve got to go to work every day. I’m not settled in. I’m not just going out there going through the motions.”
Last season, Leno said he pinpointed one area to improve technically each week, specifically mentioning footwork and hand placement.
He’ll keep that approach, but being able to focus on left tackle from the start helps after he saw time on the right side last year in camp and the preseason.
“Last year, I’d be behind somebody, still learning new things,” Leno said. “But being with the coaching staff now, getting a whole year under my belt playing-wise, it builds confidence for me going into next year.”
One difference is that Leno won’t have Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, around for advice. But Leno learned plenty.
“One of the best role models I ever had,” Leno said. “I miss the guy, but you know it’s a business, and that’s how it goes. [He’s] just one of the best professionals I’ve ever been around. He showed me the ropes and I still, to this day, thank him.”